This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.
Suicides by Jefferson County youth reached a decade high in 2021 as physicians across the country declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
So far this year, 29 people aged 25 and under have died by suicide in Louisville — the highest number recorded for this age group since the county began keeping track in 2014. The youngest among them was a 12-year-old girl who died less than two months ago.
Young people of color are disproportionately represented. Of the 53 total deaths by suicide in this age group since the start of 2020, more than 40% of them were Black, Hispanic or Indigenous. In total, Jefferson County’s population is only 22% Black, 6% Hispanic and less than 1% Indigenous, compared to 71% white.
According to data from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office obtained by KyCIR, the annual number of deaths by suicide for people 25 and under increased by more than 80% over the last eight years.
Experts say the pandemic only exacerbated an already concerning trend in mental health issues for young people.
“Every single child in the world has at least one adverse childhood experience right now. And that is COVID,” said Dr. Katy Hopkins, medical director for the Pediatric Integrated Behavioral Health Program at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville.
Across all age groups, there have been 117 deaths by suicide in Louisville so far this year, with 41- to 55-year-olds, usually the most impacted age group, making up nearly a quarter of those cases.
Young people under the age of 25 represented a similar share of this year’s deaths — the highest proportion since at least 2014. That’s the only age group to experience an increase in suicides overall this year.
A National Emergency
Norton Children’s is one of more than 220 American hospitals that joined physicians in declaring a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. In a joint statement this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association said health professionals have witnessed “soaring rates of mental health challenges” among children, adolescents and their families since the pandemic began.
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, self-harm and suicide cases increased 45% in the first half of this year among 5- to 17-year-olds nationwide, compared to the same period in 2019. The data also show emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts were especially high among girls aged 12 to 17, rising by more than 50% in that time period.
Dr. Hopkins said she is noticing similar trends in Louisville.
In 2020, Norton Healthcare emergency departments saw 25 pediatric patients for self-harm. This year so far, they’ve seen 95 — a nearly 300% increase.
On top of an overall rise in stress and isolation, Hopkins said young people don’t necessarily have access to the coping strategies they had prior to the pandemic, including time with their friends and other peer groups.
“I certainly am getting more and more referrals for anxiety disorders and seeing more teenagers with concerns of depression,” she said. “Healthy development is hitched to a person’s ability to connect with people their own age and connect with peers in person. And that has really been limited over these past two years.”
Adults’ mental health and stress can also directly impact children, she said. When parents are dealing with economic instability, job loss or health concerns, as many have during the pandemic, it can affect the whole household.
And many young people are struggling with the deaths of their caregivers due to COVID-19.
A national study showed that more than 140,000 children lost either a primary or secondary caregiver since the pandemic began. Of those, 65% were Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian. In Kentucky, at least 2,500 children are estimated to have lost a parent or grandparent who provided them with a home and basic needs, including love, security and daily care.
“Addressing the loss that these children have experienced — and continue to experience — must be one of our top priorities, and it must be woven into all aspects of our emergency response, both now and in the post-pandemic future,” said CDC researcher Susan Hillis in a press release.
Louiville’s Young People Of Color
In Louisville, COVID-19 is just one of the traumatic experiences young people, and especially young people of color, faced over the last two years. The police killing of Breonna Taylor brought national attention to the city and spurred months of protests against racism and police brutality, which experts say has significantly impacted the mental health of Black youth.
“We’ve been battling a triple pandemic in Louisville,” Dr. Hopkins said. “We have the pandemic of COVID. We have a pandemic of a racial reckoning that has been a long time coming in our community that we really have needed to face for a long time. And then we have the aftereffect of both of those things, which is the mental health issues.”
Of the youth under 25 who died by suicide in Louisville since 2020, 40% were people of color — 28% Black, 8% Hispanic and 4% Indigenous.
“This is an alarming statistic, and something that we should definitely be paying attention to,” said Steven Kniffley, clinical psychologist and chief diversity officer at Spalding University.
According to Kniffley, COVID-19 has “put on center stage” the longstanding racism and discrimination experienced by people of color that extends to housing, the workplace and education. In Louisville, and across the country, communities of color are also more heavily burdened by illness and death caused by COVID-19.
The increased isolation caused by the pandemic, Kniffley said, combined with instances of police brutality and racism in Louisville over the past two years, has been a breeding ground for internalized racial trauma in black communities specifically.
“As they witness these experiences of racism and discrimination, our Black and brown youth have had no place to have conversations about what this means for them and what this means for their safety and well-being as youth in our country,” he said.
As the leader of Spalding’s Collective Care Center, one of the nation’s only behavioral health clinics to specialize in treating race-based trauma and stress, Kniffley said experiences of racism and discrimination can often lead to internalized hatred and low self-worth, contributing to rising suicide rates.
For the Black community specifically, the biggest increase has been among males.
“What we know is in the last 20 years, suicides have quadrupled for Black males,” he said. “And now suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black males across the lifespan.”
Of the young Black people who died by suicide in Louisville this year, all but one were males.
For Kniffley, the key to reducing suicide attempts in young people is education and resources. Louisville, like the rest of the country, has a shortage of psychologists, and especially psychologists of color.
“Here in the city of Louisville, I’m one of very few child psychologists and maybe the only child psychologist that is a Black male,” he said. “So it is very hard for us to access services, especially for those folks that look like us.”
Jasmine Demers is a Report for America corps member. Contact Jasmine at 502.814.6547 or [email protected]
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers. Here are some additional resources:
Youth: Ways to take care of yourself (National Suicide Prevention Hotline)
Spalding University’s Collective Care Center – 502-792-7011 – Offers free therapy for those who have experienced race-based trauma
Mental Health Lou – Search a database of mental wellness providers in Louisville
National Alliance on Mental Illness Louisville – Find support groups, local emergency resources and therapy options.
WAVE-3 “It’s Your Life” Youth Help Line – (866) 589-8727 – Talk to specially trained peer counselors
YMCA Safe Place Services – (502) 635-5233 – A network of community partners where teens can go to get help
Crisis text line – Text HOME to 741741